A barnburner of a speech


Their eyes stared blankly at me. Too bored to blink, the students barely responded as we talked about the best speeches in American History. Then I hit play on the above video, in which actor Brian Jones reads portions of “What To a Slave is the Fourth of July.”

Maybe it was Jones’ fiery performance, but I truly think Frederick Douglass’s vivid and powerful rhetoric that caught their imagination.

I truly believe that Douglass is the father of modern American rhetoric. He mastered so many of his rhetorical tools so well that it seems many people mimic them. To me, there’s a drastic difference in the speeches that came before and after him.

While we couldn’t cover the entire speech in class – it’s more than an hour long – we hit on some of the high points.

“This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

Wow! Douglass brought all his rhetorical might there.

“Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”

That is power.

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